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Resource and Energy Efficiency is Needed Today for the Buildings and Cities of Tomorrow

By Achim Steiner
Executive Director UNEP

As countries continue to seek avenues to enhance competitiveness and sustainable economies, while  developing greater awareness of environmental degradation and resource consumption, the building sector continues to present significant opportunities to promote energy and resource efficiency. 

 Buildings, according to a recent report, “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change,” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014), remain one of the most immediate, beneficial, and highly cost-effective opportunities to reduce energy use. Additionally, action in the building sector can contribute to meeting broader sustainable development goals of poverty alleviation, energy security, and job creation, and contribute to broader action resulting in greener and more resource efficient cities.

 However, to realize the full potential of the building sector, individual and collective actions will be required by national governments, local authorities, the private sector and civil society. 

 A significant opportunity to realize this potential is before us through the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP).  As a key outcome of the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, the10YFP, a global framework of action to enhance international cooperation, is expected to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production patterns (SCP) in both developed and developing countries, at regional as well as at national and local levels. It will support capacity building, and facilitate access to technical and financial assistance for developing countries.  Sustainable Buildings and Construction (SBC) is one of the 10YFP’s programme areas. The programme development recognises the important work that has been accomplished so far, but also realises there remains much more to be done.

 Many existing and new buildings cannot be regarded as sustainable as their impacts are too large and their benefits too few. With a huge global demand for new buildings, especially homes, it is vital that the sector increasingly moves towards sustainability. There are plenty of individual examples of good practice, but the overall rate of change is too slow to lead to overall market transformation. To that end, replication and scaling up of best practices as well as concerted accelerated actions should be promoted.

 While the 10YFP programme is a long-term vision, in the short term the SBC programme targets 4 important work areas: promoting enabling frameworks and global stakeholder dialogue; sustainable social housing; resource efficiency in the building supply chain; and further realising the mitigation potential of the building stock.

 Without altering current trends, energy use and related emissions in the building sector may double or even triple by 2050 (IPCC 2014). While countries are successfully improving access to housing, electricity, and other domestic uses (cooking, appliances, etc.) as their populations urbanise they must significantly change the ways in which their buildings are designed, constructed and operated.

 Fortunately, many of the techniques and technologies needed for a low-carbon future exist today and are clearly demonstrated in a number of markets, cities and regions.

 Through the broad uptake and acceptance of best practices it is possible to achieve, by mid-century, a slight decline in building sector energy use compared to 2005 (IPCC 2014).  However, without increased, vigorous action in the building sector by national governments, local municipalities and non-governmental organisations we risk locking in 80% of 2005’s energy use. Current planned policies and business-as-usual will results in a worrying situation from both the environmental and resource-use perspectives. There is an urgent need to adopt state-of-the-art practices and performance standards over the long lifespan of our building stock.

 The environmental, economic, and social story of the building sector is more than just energy. It also includes a need for greater resource efficiency.

 Sustainable consumption and production in the building sector is of increasing importance as people move to cities, which is driving demand for new homes, offices, schools and other public buildings. As urbanization continues to increase, the manner in which cities develop and manage resources and material flows will become critically important and national governments, local authorities and the private sector need to work collaboratively to assure that resources are used efficiently.

 The construction of buildings and associated infrastructure to support urbanization are not only important economic drivers for many economies but are also responsible for consumption of a significant amount of the energy, water, waste and materials.  Buildings and urban services are inextricably linked, and must be planned holistically to facilitate the construction and operation of resource-efficient and sustainable cities.

 The Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at Rio+20, and backed by a range of international institutions, including the World Bank, UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and others, is working to highlight the ways cities can better manage resources and drive sustainable patterns of consumption and production, especially in the built environment.  

 Government action on energy and resource efficiency in buildings allows for progress on broader social goals, including job creation, improved energy security, better indoor and outdoor air quality, alleviation of fuel poverty and better economic conditions – whether it is from reducing the need for energy subsidies or the increased spending power of energy-efficient households. UNEP’s Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative (UNEP-SBCI), a public-private partnership established in 2007, has worked to facilitate adoption of sustainable building policies and practices by governments and private sector. 

 But there is still much to do in many places, and strong leadership by governments, business and industry, as well as civil society can help overcome the remaining barriers that currently block broad market uptake of energy and resource efficiency in the building sector.

 Finally, many organisations, including UNEP, understand the need to expand efforts from improving sustainability and energy efficiency in individual buildings to applying this approach to whole cities. This entails extending the concepts of sustainable consumption and production to the delivery of city services such as water distribution, waste disposal, public transport and even to the food and material systems operating at the city-scale. Through collective efforts of governments, local authorities and the private sector, the building sector can help lead the transition to a greener resource-efficient economy and to a more sustainable world.




 “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.” Working Group III Contribution to IPCC 5th Assessment Report. WGIII: 12th/Doc 2a, Rev 2.




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